Aro: Language, Identity and Reflection

Handdrawn illustration of a yellow pasture against a background of hills and sparodic trees. Scene is overlaid with the dark green/light green/white/grey/black stripes of the aro pride flag. The text Aro Worlds Discussion Post sits across the image in a black, antique handdrawn type, separated by two ornate Victorian-style black dividers.

I’m K. A. Cook. I run several accounts with “aro” in the title: Aro Worlds on Patreon and WordPress, @aroworlds on Tumblr, @alloaroworlds on Tumblr, @aroflagarchive on Tumblr and Aro Arrows on WordPress.

Aro, the shortened version of aromantic, is a significant part of my creativity, my identity, my self-expression and my digital noms de plume.

After a few years of identifying only as aromantic, I now name myself arovague, idemromantic and nebularomantic. I need the specificity of these micro-identity terms, because a general word like aromantic doesn’t always fit my identity and these words better centre my autism in how I understand aromanticism, romance and attraction. Having the truth of these more-specific ways of identifying my aromanticism lets me again feel comfortable with “aro” and “aromantic”, even if I no longer define myself by an absence of romantic attraction instead of an absence of alloromantic understandings of romantic attraction.

I can identify myself in relation to a larger group of people with whom I have similarities in not being wholly and permanently alloromantic: aro and aromantic. I can identify myself in relation to a smaller sub-group of people that more closely share my aromantic experiences: nebularomantic, arovague, idemromantic. One speaks to a broader coalition, a category of experiences; one speaks to specific ways of experiencing and understanding my aromanticism.

I’m not, in this post, speaking for any other aro. I’m giving voice to my fears and beliefs; I’m sharing and explaining the decisions I have made concerning language and identity. Just as no other aromantic has my relationships to my identities, neither have I seen another aromantic voice my exact experiences of alienation and connection. You don’t need to agree with my conclusions, but I do ask that you respect them.

So I’ll begin with this declaration: I am aro and aromantic.

I will no longer identify myself, my projects, my communication or my community with the term “aro-spec”.

I’ve seen posts on Tumblr argue that “aro” doesn’t include anyone who: can’t or won’t identify their aromanticism as a complete lack of romantic attraction, possesses shifting or conditional attraction, considers their aromanticism shaped by a quality or experience that isn’t asexuality or allosexuality, possesses or connects to more than one aromantic-spectrum identity, and/or can’t perceive a meaningful difference between romantic and platonic/alterous/sexual attraction. “Aro” in this view means anyone who can use terms like “aro”, “aro-ace” or “allo-aro” alone to describe their aromanticism; it means a lack of need for specific, additional terminology. Anyone who can’t use aro alone to describe their aromanticism isn’t aro enough for the word: we are, instead, “aro-spec”.

My use of “aro” as a myrromantic (identifying with more than one aromantic spectrum identity) sometimes is considered appropriation from “full” aros. I am not in their eyes entitled to use “aro” without “-spec” as a modifier.

Most of those posts don’t write out the definition of aro as I did above. They focus on the “doesn’t experience romantic attraction” part, as though aromantics can be divided neatly into “never experiences romantic attraction” and “experiences some romantic attraction but isn’t alloromantic” halves. This is where words like “end-case” and “strictly” come to replace still-common terms like “fully” and “completely”. Aromantics who can’t fit either category get forcibly pushed into one or the other; a degree of perceived romance or romantic attraction in our aromanticism is used as the metric for so doing.

In this light, “aromantic” and “aro-spec” aren’t, and can’t be, synonyms.

I’ve also seen posts that attempt to counter this exclusionary argument: “aromantic” is an aro-spec identity, being as it is part of the aromantic spectrum, and “aro-spec” shouldn’t be used in ways that exclude end-case (most often read as “no romantic attraction”) aromanticism.

In this light, “aromantic” and “aro-spec” are synonymous in one direction: all aromantics are aro-spec. To not treat them as mono-directional synonyms is to perpetuate erasure by suggesting that “full”, “end-case” or “strictly” aromantics aren’t part of the aromantic spectrum.

The third category of posts offers true equality: all aros are entitled to use the words “aro” and “aromantic”; “aro-spec” is a synonym for “aromantic”. In this most inclusive light, all aromantics are aro-spec and all aro-specs are aromantic.

If anything, this post indicates a need for language that refers to aromantics who fit this sense of “strictly” aromantic and language that refers to aromantics who don’t while preserving “aro” and “aromantic” as umbrella terms. Alternatively, it indicates a need to discard the “fully” aro concept. What I have come to believe is that most of the ways we communicate being end-case aro perpetuate harmful misunderstandings of aromanticism, to the point where it’s impossible not to use and misuse them even in trying to communicate the flawed nature of these binaries and the language that reinforces them.

Consider these common terms: fully aromantic, completely aromantic.

Consider the association we have with these terms: never experiences any shape of romantic attraction.

I am nebularomantic/arovague and idemromantic. (I hold onto both words describing aromanticism shaped by neurodiversity because they both apply in different ways. To choose one is to lose the meaning and symbolism encompassed by the other.) Those words don’t describe how I am alloromantic. They may have something to do with romance or romantic attraction, but they have nothing to do with alloromanticism.

“Idemromantic” describes in part how I possess an inherently aromantic relationship to romantic attraction and romantic experiences. (I determine some behaviours as “romantic” based on their degree of neuronormativity in interpersonal relationships.) My aromantic micro-identities describe something that is to me not part of the permanently, wholly alloromantic experience. They describe the ways in which I don’t fit, follow or comprehend alloromantic understandings of romantic attraction.

If I say that the line between non-romantic and romantic attraction and relationships is arbitrary at best and incomprehensible at worst, that truth shifts me into the “not fully aromantic” category. There’s something else contained within my aromanticism, a dash of romance I can’t comprehend enough to separate out; it isn’t a “pure” non-romantic state. We seem to understand identity like a measuring glass filled with wine. Some glasses are full with wine alone, our fully aromantics; others are topped up with varying amounts of water to reach the brim. Diluted aromanticism, incomplete aromanticism, impermanent aromanticism.

Aromanticism with modifier.

Even I talk this way, on account of lack of language and community comprehension about aromanticism outside the easy-to-identify “no romo”. (Discussions about grey-umbrella aromanticism are often lead by asexual aros in a context or environment of being both asexual and aromantic, hampering participation for allosexual grey and dia aros.) We recognise the problems in treating aromanticism as a modifier to asexual or allosexual attraction identities, yet we still don’t know how to treat grey and dia aro identities as more than aromantic modifiers.

“Nebularomantic” doesn’t in me describe a half-aromantic, half-alloromantic state. It doesn’t describe a state between aromanticism and alloromanticism. It names fundamentally aromantic experiences of and relationships to the concepts of romance and romantic attraction, in ways for which a broad word like “aromantic” alone lacks precision. Even those greyromantic and dia aro identities that encompass romantic attraction can be understood as describing aromantic relationships to romance and romantic attraction.

Arovague is a statement of one way in which I am aromantic, in the same way that pansexual and polysexual are statements of the ways in which I am multisexual. To say I am not aromantic enough to use “aro” and “aromantic” is to deny my right to understand and declare my own aromanticism–the same ridiculousness as someone else’s saying that my pansexuality is not enough to name myself multisexual.

Not all greyromantic-umbrella or dia aros will see our identities the way I have outlined. Some folks are comfortable under the half-aro, half-alloro or “not fully aromantic” paradigm. Some folks don’t centre aromanticism in their quoiromanticism.

Yet this sense of grey/dia aromanticism as modifier and aromanticism as a measurable quantity modified by romantic attraction also does nothing to prevent or discourage gatekeeping. It doesn’t challenge this false binary of “no romance” and “some romance” that insists on an ability to recognise and separate out romance that is not possessed by all aromantics–a binary on which language can be twisted and manipulated to deny aros like me full participation in our community. A binary reinforced by the clumsy ways the community uses “aro-spec” (often meaning “aros with some romantic attraction”) versus “aromantic” (often meaning “aros with no romantic attraction”).

The existence of the allo-aro community, on the other hand, undermines both the need for the word “aro-spec” and the exclusionary concept that grey/dia aros can’t use “aro” alone.

We adopted the word “allosexual” as an umbrella term because it creates a meeting ground for pansexuals, polysexuals, lesbians, bisexuals, gays, omnisexuals, queers, abrosexuals and heterosexuals, to name but a few. Allosexual aromantic, while it began in the asexual community, creates space where aromantic-spectrum people of different sexual-attraction experiences can gather and support each other. Our identities aren’t the same, but we do share some experiences (especially erasure) through being allosexual (not being asexual).

We can’t build allo-aro identity, community and advocacy when half of us are required to name ourselves as “allosexual nebularomantic”, “allosexual demiromantic” or even “allosexual aro-spec”. We need the use of a single term that is understood to encompass us all despite our differences. Thus far, I haven’t come across any allo-aro arguing otherwise.

Allo-aros of all shapes of aromanticism and aromantic identities use the word “aro” in “allo-aro”. It’s understood, implicitly and explicitly, that “allo-aro” means all of us both aromantic and allosexual at least in part, and we shouldn’t assume that “allo-aro” doesn’t include demiromantics, lithromantics or platoniromantics.

In their their least-harmful and most-inclusive interpretations, aro and aro-spec have the same meaning. “Aro” alone is already used to refer to everyone under the aromantic umbrella.

So why use “aro-spec” at all?

As an autistic, it’s harder to follow conversations that use two words as synonyms; I assume that they must have different meanings. (I believe this is why “aro-spec” started to be used in opposition to “an aro who never experiences romantic attraction”.) For newcomers, it makes conversations less comprehensible; it requires yet another word, in a jargon-heavy space, to learn and use. “Aro-spec” not only requires people to learn another word for the same phenomenon in the best-case example but creates a circumstance where it is not only possible but probable it means something different.

As a physically disabled aro, I am also resentful of the additional labour required to type out additional letters and characters in adding “-spec”. (We shorten “aromantic” to “aro” for a reason.) Why is the term that requires more effort to speak and type regarded as the more “progressive” or “inclusive” term when “aro” alone is far more accessible? No, I don’t believe this ableism is deliberate, but it makes our community less welcoming for disabled aros.

What purpose has the word “aro-spec” when “aro” is used in contexts like “allo-aro” and “aro-ace” to refer to the many ways in which one can be aromantic?

What purpose has the word “aro-spec” when it provides fuel for misunderstanding and gatekeeping, enables the treatment of grey and dia aros as “less” aro, makes it harder for disabled aros to communicate, and does nothing to break down the no-romantic attraction/some romantic attraction binary that harms aros like me?

“Aro-spec” was ostensibly created to make aros who don’t fit into the standard “never feels romantic attraction” definition feel more included. Best intentions aside, all this term has done for me is diminish my own sense of aromantic identity while justifying the exclusionary rhetoric pushing me further to the edges of my own community.

From here on in, the only instance in which I’ll use “aro-spec” is in the case of another’s personal identity.

In all other circumstances, I will use “aro” or “aromantic”.

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